Houston artist Bill Davenport announced this weekend that he has officially closed his storefront, Bill’s Junk. Opened in 2008 by the artist, the store was part art project and part genuine secondhand shop. Mr. Davenport sold various types of art and objects in the space: his own paintings and sculptures; artwork sourced from eBay, Goodwill, and yard sales; books; miscellaneous objects given to him by friends, neighbors and strangers; and anything and everything else. Bolstered by the motto “Art can be disappointing, but junk always exceeds your expectations,” Mr. Davenport took a wide-ranging approach to his junk shop. On Facebook, he described Bill’s Junk as “a store where high art, low craft, nature and salvage are reconciled under the umbrella of commerce.”
Mr. Davenport came to Houston in 1990 for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Core Residency Program. After three years as a Core resident, he decided to remain in the city because of the opportunity it provided. “Houston was great, because you could do anything you wanted and nobody cared,” Mr. Davenport told Glasstire. “It seemed like the possibilities were endless, and they were.”
During and after his time at the Core, Mr. Davenport began to exhibit his work across Texas, including at Inman Gallery and Wiersbowski Gallery in Houston, and at Angstrom Gallery in Dallas. In the late 1990s and early aughts, Mr. Davenport taught art at schools across the city of Houston. From 1995 to 1997, he published Artletter, “Houston’s Timely Magazine of Art,” in which he and other contributors reviewed exhibitions and events.
In 2006, Mr. Davenport and Francesca Fuchs purchased the two-story building that would eventually house Bill’s Junk, located in Houston’s Heights neighborhood at 1125 E 11th Street. The building was not in a good state — it had been condemned by the city and its ceiling was falling in. The entire space, which is 4,000 square feet, had previously been in the 1930s, according to writer Pete Gershon, “a fleabag flophouse.” Subsequent tenants of the building included various barbers, lunch counters, and, before Mr. Davenport and Ms. Fuchs bought the building, “a ramshackle party supply store.” Mr. Davenport and Ms. Fuchs worked to renovate the building. Upstairs they constructed a family apartment, and downstairs they constructed two studio spaces.
In 2008, once the pair had finished updating the building, Mr. Davenport decided to dispose of their excess building materials by putting them outside, like a yard sale. He additionally set out thrift store artwork (he had been collecting works by no-name artists for 25 years), as well as his own work that he wanted to get rid of. This yard sale spilled into the building’s storefront.
Then, an increasing number of people began coming by to see his yard sale. Weeks after Mr. Davenport began trying to get rid of his excess objects, Toby Kamps, who was then a curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), came by to ask if Mr. Davenport would consider including his yard sale in the museum’s upcoming (and now legendary) exhibition, No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston. According to Mr. Davenport, this ask was “a difficult decision” and “sort of a slap in the face” — he had been an artist actively working the city for years, and suddenly the museum didn’t want his actual art for exhibition, but instead wanted his yard sale. Ultimately, he agreed to the show on the condition that everything he trucked to the museum really would be for sale — his project would be an operating store inside the exhibition.
The inclusion of his project in No Zoning was a turning point for Mr. Davenport. As a concept, Bill’s Junk was exceedingly popular — when he was tending the shop, attendees to the exhibition would come in and suddenly realize they were in a store. “Their faces would light up,” Mr. Davenport says, “shopping is way more interesting than looking at art. I mean, literally. The difference between the way someone looks at a piece of art in a museum and the way they look at something when they’re shopping is night and day. Shopping beats looking at art any day, pretty much.”
Throughout the four-month-run of the exhibition, he sold-out the store multiple times. Ultimately, this proved the project’s concept to Mr. Davenport, and he decided to keep it going after the exhibition was over. He wanted Bill’s Junk to have a larger life beyond the CAMH’s exhibition, outside of an art world context. Also, as he tells Glasstire, people in Houston expected him to continue running it into perpetuity.
The basic idea behind Bill’s Junk is the concept behind many artistic ventures: “to show people a larger world.” Mr. Davenport continued: “what I really like is when people come in and see something that they hadn’t considered before, and they consider it and then they’re like ‘okay that could be like that’ and then they smile and it’s great.”
Much of the mystique around objects at Bill’s Junk came from the way they were presented — they crowded the floor, peg boards, shelves, and myriad other display units. Many of the objects also had small, handwritten tags, attached via string. These tags sometimes gave a brief history or context for the object, along with its price. The stories of the objects that passed through Bill’s Junk included those of aging and deceased artists, of faraway self-taught makers, and of Houston history, among many others.
Mr. Davenport’s own art also played a big part in Bill’s Junk. Although he was represented by Inman Gallery for a number of years, he began showing and selling smaller-scale artworks out of his store. Many of these pieces were affordable — under $100 — so that they could both be relatable to and blend in with the other objects on view.
Concurrently with Bill’s Junk, Mr. Davenport also ran an exhibition space next door in the building’s connected storefront. Initially his idea was to open a commercial gallery space, called Optical Project. Starting in October of 2008, about five exhibitions ran in this first iteration of the gallery, including solo shows by artists such as Maggie Hills, Giles Lyon, and Ludwig Schwarz. The space also hosted a show by Sterling Allen, which, as Mr. Davenport tells it, was Arturo Palacios’ first venture into the Houston scene. (Mr. Palacios went on to move his gallery, Art Palace, from Austin to Houston. He later cofounded Deasil.)
Eventually, Mr. Davenport realized that he “didn’t like being an art dealer and had no talent for it.” The gallery then became a flex space where artists could propose shows. It operated this way, intermittently hosting pop-ups and exhibitions by Charlie Kitchen, Kathleen McShane, Paul Horn, Seth Alverson, and others, until 2020. Mr. Davenport tells Glasstire that there are two more shows scheduled to happen in the space before summer 2022. After that, this space will shutter, too.
Mr. Davenport has told Glasstire that he intends to rent out the Bill’s Junk storefront. While he says that it would be “nice to have something cool” in the space, he does not have a particular tenant in mind. The rental property, which is about 720 square feet, will include Bill’s Junk and the back portion of the space, which served as Mr. Davenport’s painting studio.
As for why Mr. Davenport decided to call it quits now, he told Glasstire that the whole junk setup that his shop is based on — the world of thrift store art — doesn’t exist anymore. “At the beginning there was a possibility of going to Value Village and finding something unrecognized, but the world seems to have caught up. Those things have value now — they’re on eBay and much more expensive.” He continued, “it has been one long downhill slide. I started with the best stuff and now I just have mediocre stuff left. And that makes it not fun anymore. I really should have closed four years ago for that reason.” He summed it up: “I ran out of good junk, really.”
While Mr. Davenport may have been thinking about closing for a while, the decision came on a whim. He painted a sign that read “EVERY-THING MUST GO!” on the morning of January 29, without deciding to close the store. He had merely intended to get rid of much of his inventory. Then, as people began to ask him if he was closing shop, he began saying that he was. And just like that, as quickly as Bill’s Junk had materialized, it was closed.
When looking back on what he’s taking away from his time running Bill’s Junk (storefront artist-run spaces aren’t new — Claes Oldenburg ran The Store in 1961, and Texas artist Franco Mondini-Ruiz ran his Infinito Botanica in the 1990s. Both influenced Bill’s Junk), Mr. Davenport told Glasstire that the project “certainly gave me a lot of insight into how people think about art and its marketing. It allowed me to step outside of the business part of the art world, which I was feeling a bit constrained by in 2008.” He went on to say that the project also gave him a way to do something different — it enabled him to abandon the New York-centric model of how you’re “supposed to” be an artist in society. “What can you do that will matter to people in Houston? Being a gallery artist was okay, but it wasn’t vital in the way a store was vital.”
Mr. Davenport will continue to post items for sale on his Instagram, and he will continue to participate in pop-ups and events, like the multi-day shop he ran at Talley Dunn Gallery in 2019. These types of events will allow him to still have the shopkeep-customer relationships, which have been such a large part of Mr. Davenport’s life over the past fourteen years.
“The best thing about the store always was the customers,” Mr. Davenport told Glasstire. “I’ve had so many great customers and so many great interactions with people. I want to put in a thank you to them, because without them it is just me sitting in a room. And that’s what it was in the end, and that’s why I quit.”
Correction: February 2, 2022: This article has been updated to reflect that Bill Davenport and Francesca Fuchs, together, purchased and renovated the building that housed Bill’s Junk.